Pastel Portrait Tutorials: Portrait of a Young Boy

Pastel Portrait Tutorials : Tips for Commissioned Portraits

In the following pastel portrait tutorials, you will watch how I typically create a portrait for my clients. I have adopted this same approach for years and it is working quite well for me.

To prepare for a pastel portrait, first take some time to plan out your painting. What kind of “look” do you want to achieve? Will you attempt a more photorealistic look, or more impressionistic for your pastel portrait? Will you use a reduced set of colors, or use everything in the box? Do you want a really smooth look, or keep lots of feathering and texture?

For this portrait of a young boy, I would like to achieve a painterly look, with crisp colors, that still shows some of the feathering and texture without distracting or artificially aging the subject.

Once you have a basic idea of what you want to achieve, choose a pastel surface with the right tone and texture for that type of painting. Note that I am using a mid-tone gray paper. I never use white or dark paper for a young child's face for a pastel portrait. Next, get the pastel sticks ready—and yes, wear your protective gloves.

I used a photograph to create this step-by-step demo of a boy's portrait. The boy is thirteen years old now, but mothers often want a portrait of their children when they were still small. In this situation, it is essential to get a good photograph (or set of photographs) of the subject—never compromise on a good photograph!

The challenge of working with photographs is that the lighting is usually poor and misleading from an artist's point of view. Also, in photos, people usually “smile for the camera,” (as in this case) which poses an extra challenge to the portrait artist—it is easy to turn a smile into a grimace. On top of that, when the subject is so young, it is very easy to “age” them if you're not careful (by making the lines and angles too sharp).

It is a good thing that in this case I have a well lit photograph, and I have enlarged it enough that I can easily measure features with some precision.

Pastel Portrait Tutorials : Rule Number 1 — Make the drawing of the subject right from the start.

I can't overemphasize the important of that statement in all of my portrait tutorials!

O.k, let's get started!

  • I took about one hour to get this drawing right. I measured features with my pencil and finger.

    You can also use the grid method to quickly get the outline drawing and overall placements of the features. You might want to brush up on your anatomy of the human head before starting.

    I like to take my time drawing and shading before I add colors for my pastel portrait. Getting the drawing right at the beginning will save you a lot of trouble later.

    pastel portrait demo 1

  • With the drawing done, I am ready to start adding color. If you are feeling uncertain of your abilities, you can refresh your memory on the application of color with pastels.

    I feather in the large shadow areas first on the cloth and the boy's face using raw umber of different values. I use raw umber because there is a lot of raw umber in his blond hair. I do not normally use earth tone colors for children's in a pastel skin in a pastel portrait but they work here as a base color that, with the hair color, will help unify the painting.

    pastel portrait demo 2

    Pastel Portrait Tutorials : Another rule—You can use colors creatively if you keep the tonal relationship right.

  • I add darker blue to his cloth for shadows. Light blue and green gray are used for his clothing. Notice that the bluish tone on his white shirt is reflected from his blue overalls. I also intend to use the same color for his skin tone later.

    I pull the color from his overalls to the background and vary the shades. I add some dark green to the background to make the colors interesting. With my gloved fingers, I blend some of the colors in the background, as I do not want any heavy feathering here to take attention from the boy's face. I am especially careful in areas where two different colors are adjacent to each other because I want to avoid muddy colors when I can.

    pastel portrait demo 3

  • I build up the middle tones heavily on his face using non-earth tones. I also work on his eyes using the same dark blue as on the overalls. The same blue is also in the shadows on the sides of his face and under the chin. Note how the original dark earth tone is still underneath. I'm using a lot of feathering because, I decided early on to emphasize textures and keep the colors as vibrant as possible for this painting.

    pastel portrait demo 4

  • I continue by adding the mid-tones on the boy's face—introducing colors like pink into the portrait. The pink complements the blue on his shirt and in the background. I could also use green or orange for this purpose—as long as the tones are correct.

    pastel portrait demo 5

  • I want to build up the subject's form fairly quickly, to ensure that I don't use up the 'tooth' of the paper. At this stage, the pastel portrait starts to look more three dimensional.

    pastel portriait demo 6

  • Value, value, and value....always the key component in all the pastel portrait tutorials! I am still perfecting the tones, and making sure the colors are unified at the same time. Being impatient as I am, I have already added the highlights on his eyes and his nose—technically, I should wait until the end to do that. If needed, I could soften his eyes a bit by smearing around the edges.

    pastel portrait demo 7

  • I turn my attention back to the boy's clothing. It looks flat, so I squint to identify the prominent values, and this helps me get the right tones of blues and grays in the right spots.

    pastel portrait demo 8

  • The blue in the background starts to look more intense than it should be, so I am toning it down by adding its complementary color—orange—into it. I adjust the amount of orange in the background so that it will not look muddy. I also blend the shadow in the hair so it appears smoother.

    In this last stage, I correct the tonal relationships throughout the painting. I have lots of beautiful pastel colors in the box in front of me, but now I am mainly concerned with color and tonal harmony, so I control the impulse to add new colors to the painting.

    I finish the pastel portrait off with a bit of blending to soften some of the edges of shapes—such as the eyes, mouth, and eyebrows. The background is also blended somewhat, but I leave some of the feathered texture visible to achieve a unified style.

pastel portrait demo 9

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